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A Rock to Remember: A memoir from early Tourism to Uluru

A Rock to Remember - Edna Bradley In 1956, Edna Bradley was a bored seventeen year old who had recently quit high school to work in her parents' Melbourne, Australia furniture store. She liked her parents well enough, and enjoyed making some pocket money, but what she really wanted was some excitement. This came to her in the form of a promotional womans' tour arranged by entrepaneuer Len Tuit, and advertised in her local newspaper. Tuit was a tour operator in Australia's "Red Centre", who hoped the tour would draw attention to the area as a travel destination. Promotion of the area is so robust today, one can hardly search the internet for Australian travel without immediately encountering an image of the famous "Ayer's Rock" (aka "Uluru") ; but in 1956, the site was virtually unknown, even among Australians. Edna saved her money, and signed up for the trip. Here's a group pic from the tour, which went in October 1957: The Northwest Territories' Board of Tourism estimates that less than 150 tourists visited Uluru in 1956. Most of these were on Tuit's tours. The experience demanded a two day bus ride from Alice Springs, over dirt roads, stopping at remote cattle ranches for meals. Once in Yuluru, the visitors lived in Tuit's little tent city, and explored "the Rock" with Aboriginal guides, who would explain its siginificance in ancient lore. The rock itself is a single massive piece of composite iron and stone, precipitated out of the surrounding materials back when the Earth's crust was first forming. It sits like a massive iceburg, with only its top 1/3 visible, and the bulk of its mass underground. Cracks and fissures created when it cooled produced caves, which Aboriginees use in cerimonies- some exclusively for use by women, others exclusively for men, and still others inhabited by hostile spirits, and off-limits to all. The narration is a little flat, but you can still grasp a sense of how new and different all this must have seemed to a city girl in the 50's. I guess a lot of Anglo-Australians in those days had minimal to no exposure to Aboriginees, so Edna is fascinated to meet some, and waxes on about different aspects of their culture. The tour makes a big impression on her, and she resolves to return the next year, to work for Tuit's Tours. Her work experience accounts for the bulk of the book. It's a lot of cooking, cleaning and dealing with co-workers, but also describes the frontier-like existance of the Northern Territories in the mid-50's. Children on far-flung ranches and weather stations tune into shortwave radio for school lessons. Doctors make their rounds to small desert communities by plane. Overland travel is almost exclusively on dirt roads, or just driving as best as one can across the virgin desert, and frequently requires passengers to get out and push vehicles out of ruts and (in the rainy season) mud patches. Most of the characters here aren't very engaging, but it is fun to see things through Edna's eyes. One memorable experience she has is a chance encounter with Aboriginee painter, Albert Namatjira (1902-1959), whose story is worthy of its own novel. He was raised at a Catholic mission, and learned Western style painting early on from one of the priests. He had a natural talent, and produced prolific landscapes of central and western Australia. The Australian art community, however, didn't want to see Western style from an Aboriginee. The sense at the time is that he should limit himself to the traditional abstract style of native Australians. His work was so good, though, that he soon got recognition abroad, and could no longer be ignored. When invited to exhibit works in Japan and Europe, he became an embarrassment to the Australian government because he couldn't initially get a passport, since Aboriginees by law weren't citizens; they were essentially stateless entities living in specifically-zoned areas. To get him the passport, he was granted citizenship, but only after calling a lot of international attention to the official policies. This would seem like a happy ending for Namatjira, but actually not. As a citizen, one of his privileges was that he was allowed to live in Alice Springs township, and allowed to purchase alcohol. Soon, all his friends and family were asking to live with him, and wanted him to buy them drinks. By the social moores of his tribe, he couldn't refuse them, so his home became something like an Aboriginal "party central" in Alice Springs, which- needless to say- the neighbors didn't appreciate. This resulted in all sorts of legal trouble for him, and a lot of conflicted response on the part of Anglo-Australians in general. Miserable, he eventually returned to live on tribal land, which his own folk resented (for the unwanted attention he brought, and because it shut them off from the alcohol). In the end he wasn't really accepted by either world, and became increasingly reclusive until he died. Here is a sample of Namatjira's work: Eventually Edna got homesick and returned to Adelaide. The last quarter of the book details her return trips in 1976, with her husband and four children, and then again in 2002. Her final return is a bit sad to read, although I don't think it was intended that way. Today, tourists come from all over the globe to see Uluru. There are several flights a day into the Yaluru airport, so travellers need hardly put themselves through the ordeal of two days bus travel on unpaved roads. Instead of sleeping in tents, visitors can stay in 5 star luxury accomodations, complete with room service, spa, and cable television. The resort outside Ayer's Rock offers full internet service, and tours to the Rock run around the clock, offering several cookie-cutter package experiences, such as "sunrise climb", "tour of the caves", and "champaigne dinner under the stars". On one hand, this must be what people want; they're paying for it, after all; and it's nice that so many people come to appreciate this monument of natural beauty. On the other hand, it seems that the tourism industry (as any industry) has so standardized, commoditized and streamlined the experience, that it seems less special than Edna's first trip, where the pains taken to reach this interior desert land were rewarded with a sense that you had arrived someplace special and seldom visited; that you had done something exceptional, which few others had done. This is by no means unique to Ayer's Rock; similar complaints might be aimed at Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, and probably a hundred other popular destinations worldwide.Overall, I enjoyed Bradley's narration, which has an honest, personal feel.